Born to a family of sharecroppers in Texas, Coleman went into the cotton fields at a young age while also studying in a small segregated school. She went on to attend one term of college at Langston University. She developed an early interest in flying, but African Americans, Native Americans, and women had no flight training opportunities in the United States, so she saved up money and obtained sponsorships to go to France for flight school.
She then became a high-profile pilot in notoriously dangerous air shows in the United States. She was popularly known as Queen Bess and Brave Bessie, and she hoped to start a school for African-American fliers. Coleman died in a plane crash in 1926 while testing a new aircraft. Her pioneering role was an inspiration to early pilots and to the African-American and Native-American communities.